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Watching the politicians and their non-profits

By D. G. Martin
Posted Wednesday, June 7, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - There is a new game in North Carolina politics.

It could be called “My Non-Profit vs. Your Non-Profit.”

Ambitious, attractive, but out-of-office, politicians are organizing non-profit groups. Each one is to push for some important policy goal and give the politician a platform to get attention.

Newspaper reporters are learning. They now automatically ask, “Are you planning to use this organization as a jumping off point to run for political office?”

A good answer to this question came last week from Kieran Shanahan. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said when reporters for the Raleigh News & Observer asked him about a future campaign for state attorney general.

Shanahan, a former Raleigh city councilman, announced last month that he is organizing the North Carolina Property Rights Coalition to push for a constitutional amendment that would add restrictions to the power of government to take private property using eminent domain.

Heading up the Property Rights Coalition puts Shanahan on the side of all people who don’t want the government to take their homes away from them—which is all of us. More than that, it gives him the opportunity to travel across the state, to organize supporters, to create news events that will get coverage in the local papers, to buy television and newspaper advertising that features him prominently, and to build lists of potential supporters and contributors should he ever run for attorney general.

No doubt Shanahan was inspired by the example set by another possible future candidate. Salisbury attorney Bill Graham is considering a run for governor. Rather than open up his campaign headquarters he organized a movement to roll back a recent “automatic” increase in the state’s gasoline tax. His efforts put him on the side of all people who would like to pay less for their gas.

Again, that’s everybody.

Then Graham reportedly spent more than a million dollars of his own money to organize a “roll back the gas tax” rally in Raleigh last month. His efforts brought him a good round of free media attention. His million dollars also bought television and print media advertising that featured Graham and gave him a favorable introduction to the North Carolina public.

Graham’s money and his efforts have turned him from a political unknown to a legitimate candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2008. Amazingly, he may now be the leading candidate. Why else would the friends of another leading candidate be trying to discredit Graham by leaking stories to the newspapers about Graham’s past political contributions to Democratic candidates?

The success of Graham’s aggressive efforts may frustrate his potential Republican primary opponents. But his attempts to gain public attention are more likely aimed at the possible Democratic candidates, Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue, Attorney General Roy Cooper, and Treasurer Richard Moore. Their statewide offices give them the opportunity to be in the public spotlight on a regular basis.

Graham, Shanahan, and other non-officeholder candidates know that they are at a disadvantage when they run against people who have been on television regularly.

Both Shanahan and Graham may have learned some lessons from former Senator John Edwards about the challenges an “out of office” candidate faces. Edwards, a likely presidential candidate in 2008, must compete for public attention and credibility with someone like Senator Hillary Clinton. Clinton can use her public office to make news any time she chooses.

One of Edwards’ smart moves was to help establish the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill “because millions of hard-working Americans still find themselves living in poverty.”

Maybe “eliminating poverty” is not as much a “hot button” concern as “rolling back the gas tax” or “keeping the government from taking our property.” But it is a positive goal that almost everybody can share with Edwards.

And, of course, the new center gives Edwards a much-needed platform to speak and stay in the public eye while he plans for his next campaign.

Graham, Shanahan, and Edwards have demonstrated how to play the new “non-profit” game. From now on, ambitious aspiring candidates will be expected to answer these questions: “When are you going to organize your non-profit and what important issue is it going to tackle?”


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (June 9) guest is Randall Kenan, author of “Walking On Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.”

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

June 11 Randall Kenan Walking On Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

June 18 Ann B. Ross Miss Julia's School of Beauty

June 25 Lawrence Earley Looking for Longleaf

July 2 Peter Perret A Well Tempered Mind

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